Less Than Zer000000000000000000000000

For Father’s Day I received a hammock. Here it is, down by the creek, a most glow location for a hammock, the water gurgling by as I sway, the leaves rustling, the calling of various birds, some animal thumping or digging or rolling about a bit in the weeds nearby (should I be worried?), the dappling–yes, dear poets, dappling–rays of light and shade and all those wonderful in-betweens shards/slivers/tongue/sizes and shapes of. I have a little green table for my beer and other necessities (a bowl of nachos, for example). I believe my hammock will act as elevator of the soul and a dragonfly of the mind. Also as a type of wine made of cotton. The key belief is there.

(Ancient Mayans invented the hammock, using fibrous bark from the Hamack tree.)

[[Actual Reader Comment: I was willing to overlook the dullness and amateurishness. But it just got duller and duller and duller.]]

Installing the hammock took a great while. I dug two unnecessary holes and one necessary hole. I had to purchase concrete twice. Using two different hammers, I hammered two giant nails into the tree, both unnecessary. At one point I was digging with a post-hole digger and my back suddenly went POW!! as if I was shot in the spine! Later, a candelabra of pain. Then a simmering lump of coal. That hurt for four days. I bought bolts, chain, chain attachments, some form of curly screw, 4 “S” hooks, most of this unnecessary. For a while I thought the hammock hung too low. This nibbled at my mind. At night, over dinner, during my daily aerobic training, my thoughts were, “Is my hammock hanging too low?” I adjusted the hammock and felt it was then too high. Is it too high? I’d stand and stare at the hammock for a long while. This cycle went on for many days, too low, too high, too low…just right? I hope now it’s just right. (Is that even possible?)

[Aside: I bet there are several hammock camps/cabals: those that like a big saggy C type of hang to their hammock and those who like a taut, thrumming more ___ type of hang. I bet some aficionados like their hammock to embrace their bodies in a giant ball, like a cocoon. Some like the buttocks to touch the earth while in hammock, while others like to swing free (like a memory) many feet above the soil. Cloth or synthetic? Spreader, Mayan, Jungle, Military, or Travel? I bet we got some hammock purists out there, some people with some really strong opinions. Some hammock freaks. Like uptight about hammocks, which is sort of against the very nature of the hammock.]

[[Actual Reader Comment: The text drifts much more than I recalled, and is deliciously paranoid. But there’s a pining at its core, an almost sentimentality that jumped out at me.]]

A hammock like this one is meant for reading or napping. As a rule, I do not nap, so let’s discuss reading. What was the first book I read in my new Reading Hammock? Well, purposefully, I’ve been reading a series of literature I call Books-U-Should-Have-Read-Already-Most-Likely-While-in-Your Twenties. For example, I just finished The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test. Why am I doing this? Because I’m curious. Because I think it’s my professional responsibility. I’m a fiction professor. I’m a writer of fiction. I should know these books. If you say Chekhov to me, I should be able to say, “Read him.” If you say Flannery O’Connor, “I should be able to say, “Read her.” Hell, same with Sinclair or Franzen or Moore (Lorrie) or Wright or Murakami (yes, even him) or Chopin or Carol Oates. Or even Vonnegut or Kerouac or Pirsig (Robert M.) or other Books-U-Should-Have-Read-Already-Most-Likely-While-in-Your Twenties authors. I tell my students all of the time, “Look, if you’re serious about writing fiction, you have to know these people. Not like them or dislike them or mimic them or distance yourself from them or respect them or disrespect them or any of that bullshit…but you MUST KNOW THEM!!”

Know

Them

It’s your responsibility, people. To at least know.

[Aside: While in the hammock I flipped the “off” button on a device labelled OFF, the mosquito repellant. It’s like this weird clip-on fan that repels ( I guess?) mosquitoes. I got this sweet glow from turning off, OFF. OK, I’m a word dork.]

So. Here’s what I know–or think I know–about today’s Books-U-Should-Have-Read-Already-Most-Likely-While-in-Your Twenties: Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis.

[[Actual Reader Comment: There is some talent in places, but I cannot believe the blurbs on the back cover of the edition I read. If these reviewers really meant those words, I think they were as coked up as the characters this book.]]

[Factoid: Less than Zero was sold in 1985 to Simon & Schuster for five thousand dollars.]

[Factoid: Less than Zero named after this song:

]

[Factoid: Apparently, via Paris Review, one not so enthusiastic editor said, “If there’s an audience for a novel about coke-snorting, cock-socking zombies, then by all means let’s publish the damn thing.”]

(Crazy thing is he meant zombie as figurative. These days, an actual zombie novel would sell like a taco with a shell made of fucking Doritos.)

STRUCTURE?

this is a drone in a state office in hawaii.

This book is one of those “nothing happens” books, you’ll hear some say. This is usually noted as a criticism. An eye-roll, especially if the book was written while the author was young (Ellis published Less than Zero at age 20). I would disagree. Plot does exist here. There are two types of plots, right? (Wrong!) Man leaves town, man enter towns. This is man enters town, Clay, back from the east and now to the west, Los Angeles. The structure is his arrival, the repetitive events of his life with LA friends (drugs, MTV watching, sex, put on repeat), a slight rising action as the events get nastier (though I’m sure these events appeared more extreme in 1985), and we end with his departure (a rejection of sorts by Clay to the LA life?), back east, back to school. Cyclical, you could say. Or framed. I mean you know he’s going back home as soon as the book begins with his arrival. (One move [of several: Clay refuses to use extremely hard drugs, Clay doesn’t join in on a rape {he doesn’t do anything to stop or report the rape, BTW}, etc.] that attempts to make him sympathetic as narrator. I stress attempts.)

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as she drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that had splattered on the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my gray argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blaire’s car. All it comes down to is the fact that I’m a boy coming home for a month and meeting someone whom I haven’t seen for four months and people are afraid to merge.”

(I suppose you notice this opening reads very Catcher in the Rye, and that’s fair. I’m sure you’ll detect Great Gatsby here and on and on. Ellis studied literature and writing. It’s a first novel by a young writer. Nothing in this book is really original, or even that unexpected [especially not in 2012, where most of this material can be found daily on CNN], but that’s no reason to dismiss the entire text. First novels are a genre to themselves, and it’s interesting to see how each writer recognizes [and bends] the expectations.)

[[Actual Reader Comment: The novel is harder and less hopeful than the flawed film. It’s a stunning read.]]

What else drives the text, plot-wise? Finding Julian. We need to find Julian, a strung out addict and friend-of-Clay’s who owes him a lot of money. Where is Julian? What’s he up to? How bad has he fallen? Etc.

here’s an image from a paris hilton video (which one?). in a few moments paris and her pals will be snorting the cocaine off his chest.

But let’s put these structural interests aside, and address this idea, the concept of “nothing happens.” You hear this about a lot of books, Tao Lin, for a very contemporary small press example, or certain French writers (Jean-Philippe Toussaint or Muriel Barbery or Raymond Queneau [I hope you’ve read the excellent Exercises in Style] come to mind among others), etc. But then you have to question what keeps you “hooked” into a book–is that plot? Or can all of the innumerable other things a book can do snatch you into turning its pages? Could you be hooked purely by aesthetics? Characters, tensions, objects, social situations, lyricism, satirical comment, on and on–what if these keep you reading? Is that plot? Visual artists realize narrative in a painting/sculpture/diorama/film/whatever-the-fuck can move a viewer (reader), but so can a lot of other, more abstract, more exciting (my 2.4 cents)  things…and then all these other things spring from that epiphany (see contemporary art).  PLOT! PLOT? That which drives you forward? I think so.

[[Actual Reader Comment: I think that this book has influenced a lot of contemporary fiction. I can see its fingerprints.]]

What does the author have to say about the structure of Less Than Zero?

And to the extent that there’s a plot, that’s my least favorite part of the book. In the first draft, which was much longer, the plot was less relevant. But in the course of being condensed, the plot took on more significance than I realized at the time. I look back at that book and think of the plot as having imposed itself on the material.

This interests me, in that Ellis seems to have had his “plot” emerge in revision. I think this happens a lot in writing, and it one of those magical–and weird–things about creating art. Sometimes threads just emerge during the creative act, especially in the revision of. These are pleasant surprises and make the act of writing somewhat mystical. A structure appears as if conjured. As if always there, but out of sight. (This might be one definition of spirituality, BTW) This is one reason writing a heavily pre-plotted piece of text much really be a sodden experience. To have the plot emerge as you work is fascinating. To see what will happen.

LANGUAGE:

There’s a lot of it that I wish was slightly more elegantly written.

Ellis

Some have attacked the prose of this book.They say Ellis ripped off some of Joan Didion’s L.A. writings, or they say the deadpan nature of the prose is too Raymond Chandler, etc.

[[Actual Reader Comment: This giant city is terribly claustrophobic and I hate Bret Easton Ellis for capturing it so perfectly.]]

[Aside: For a really great book on LA, why not try this one from Bukowski’s muse, Fante.]

these are bath salts. you use them for bathing. recent bathers have burned their child’s hands for stealing their bible, have killed their neighbor’s pygmy goat and then joined it in the bedroom while dressed in bra and panties, have run from electricity, have knifed their house down since the walls were filled with 90 people, something.

I don’t get these attacks on the prose. Of course the prose resembles others. Ellis was 20! Also, The Didion thing is bullshit. Didion could write circles around the prose in Less That Zero. It’s not even close. And Chandler works figurative language in a very focused way, a different eye and rhythm (and certainly emphasis on simile) than Ellis ever attempts. Again, I think these observations are because Ellis was young and people get the idea he dashed this thing off. Wrong. The book was actually written and revised for years (Ellis says five). It was shaped with creative writing instructors and editors. And I think the language is attempting several things. Let me briefly discuss two different ways: tone and in brand naming.

The tone is one of white noise and repetition. Form=function. The sentences, mostly unremarkable as far as lyric nature, pile up and pile up, like day after day after day. In Clay’s world, one day is the next day: cocaine, alcohol, marijuana, nightclub, restaurant, hangover, empty conversation, empty sex–repeat. Over and over, Clay has no idea how long he’s been in LA. Over and over, these characters lose track of week, day, location. (Everyone gets lost while driving, but it doesn’t really matter. One place is good as another.)

‘Rip does three more lines. Rip throws his head back and shakes it and sniffs loudly. He then looks at me and wants to know what I was doing at the Cafe Casino in Westwood when he clearly remembers telling me to meet him at the Cafe Casino in Beverly Hills. I tell him that I’m pretty sure he said to meet at the Cafe Casino in Westwood. Rip says, ‘No, not quite,’ and then, ‘Anyway it doesn’t matter.’

You have to admire how Ellis knows his sentences must do the heavy lifting. A lot of and work. And. And And. And we did this and this happened and I said ______ and some girl said _____ and I smoked another cigarette. And, and, and–one thing leads to another, all connected by and, all in the same sentence, of the same worth (less than zero, basically) and then you wake up and do it all over again. And again.

[[Actual Reader Comment: The book was a quick read and I could barely put it down except at certain points where I had to clear my head and thank God for the normalcy that is my life and the life of my kids.]]

(BTW, there are odd, scattered moments where Ellis shifts into a more intensely poetic prose, usually when discussing the wildlife of LA, coyotes and lizards, or when writing about the sun and the torrential rain. [This is where he leans most Didion.] Things not human, basically, things outside the encircled, narcissistic concerns of these characters. It’s a juxtaposition of language that shows some control by the author and adds an extra charge to the text.)

this is clint eastwood’s daughter. she’s eating, burning, chainsawing a hundred thousand dollar alligator skin purse.

The brand identity thing is overdone. WE GET IT, already. Lives soaked in brand, lives immersed in commercialized identity, to the point where no one even sees it, recognizes it anymore. It just is.  The shoes and cars and clothing and sunglasses and music/music/music are these character’s sun and rain and plants and scenery…This is their world. But Ellis doesn’t stop. And again, in form=function, we, as readers, get suffocated by brands. There are points in the book you just want to stop reading, to like come up for air, to see something in your brain besides Mercedes, The Go-Gos, GQ magazine.

(Aside: And this is pre-Internet!! Jesus, look at us now. The Internet is the biggest fucking brand machine in the megaverse.)

THEME:

[[Actual Reader Comment: Not a long story but one that is chilling and demands that you read it consecutively because of the eerie rhythm of language it possesses.]]

[Aside: I drank a lot of Sprite Zero while reading Less Than Zero and this might have heightened all effects.]

I think this a great example of a “mirror” book. Or maybe a mural. Look, here’s a subculture in 1980s America. The book reminds me of television, a device that is filler between commercials. And what do we see? Here, here’s what you want and therefore are. I read almost everything as metaphorical. Drugs are all of the things we do–repeatedly–to move the heart and eye from one place to another place. What is a reality show? What is celebrity? What is a car, a billboard, a desert, a highway, boredom?

I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard sign that I don’t remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is ‘Disappear Here’ and even though it’s probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light.

u recognize this, don’t you? It’s the kim kardashian sex tape. this image is right before the sex but right after the long while in the bathroom applying makeup.

Some “theme” moments are forced, primarily near the end, where things get too quickly compressed and the pace of the book fails. We quickly move from activities that only harm one person, the user–example drugs–into more ominous terrain. A graphic murder-porno film. A dead man’s body in an alley that these characters see as almost a prop, as something to view and laugh about. And then a gang rape scene (of a 12 year old) that reads as forced (as in too overt) and hastily presented.

(Not to be redundant, but in 2012 these scenes appear almost everyday. Porn? Insensitivity to human dignity? Must be a Tuesday.)

But these forced scenes are the exceptions. Many “theme” scenes I feel are nuanced and carefully written, with an exact eye and a precise sense of tone. One scene in particular, when Clay joins Julian and an out-of-town businessman [He’s actually from Muncie, Indiana, I shit you not!] in a hotel room, is written with incredible craft and control.

In another scene, Clay goes home with a young woman he’s met in a nightclub. They have “sex,” but it’s an odd and alienated dance. They might as well be in 2 different rooms. It’s clinical, sad sex, and another example of skill by the author.

[[Actual Reader Comment: After reading this book, I felt hollowed-out and dead inside.]]

Mostly the book just asks you to view. Look here. Do you see any of yourself here? Do you see your world anywhere? I discuss this idea a lot to students (often writing students are a bit theme-eager): just show the thing. Get the narrator out of the way. Ellis has a 1st person narrator but oddly very little internal monologue. Mostly it’s just show. Here, see this. See this. See this. And this approach, to me, is why people like and greatly dislike the book. One popular approach–valid or possibly not–to this technique is to say I see nothing of myself. I couldn’t even finish the thing, etc. How could I? The people here are too disgusting. I don’t recognize them at all.

Well…OK.

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